The New Face of French Jihad

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Fighters of the Islamic State (IS). Image: Day Donaldson/Flickr

This article was originally published by the World Policy Blog on 8 December, 2014.

On Sunday, November 16, the Islamic State posted a video featuring the beheading of one American aid worker and 14 Syrian soldiers. While this macabre ritual has become somewhat routine, this beheading caught the attention of French authorities, who recognized the face of Maxime Hauchard, a 22-year-old man raised in a quiet, rural village of Normandy. He embodies a new generation of fighters recruited from an unexpected landscape and motivated by an entirely different set of reasons than his militant counterparts.

Until recently, a large percentage of the French population believed that jihadists primarily recruited youth among low-income suburbs, where there are large immigrant Muslim communities. And, indeed, France is both home of Europe’s biggest Muslim community and has been the largest European supplier of jihadists. Consequently, it’s easy to assume there is a causal link between the two.

“Fundamental Islamism does not grow in Normandy’s meadows […] obviously. Massive immigration was the reason of the growth of extremist Islamism in our country,” said Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, in an interview on November 19. She has since been proven wrong.

Maxime Hauchard converted to Islam at age 17 and claimed Youtube videos and social media websites played an important role in his decision to leave for Syria.  After two trips to Mauritania where he was radicalized, he arrived in Syria through Turkey. Meanwhile, he told his family he was doing humanitarian work in North Africa.

The official data confirms that his experience is not unique;  young people are converting, not to Islam, but to the ideology of jihad. There are 1132 French citizens identified as jihadis in Syria and Iraq. Of that number, 376 have joined the combat zones, and 80 percent did not have an Islamic background. Most notably, 90 percent of their recruitment has been through the Internet.

“We keep looking at a political phenomenon as if it was a religious one. Daesh is a sect  […] its totalitarian speech can only work on people who have no Muslim culture. The more you have a religious culture, the less susceptible you are to join to these ideas,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, historian, author, and Islam specialist, in an interview for Le Monde.

French-born jihadists who have joined the Islamic State—an acronym created on June 29, when the organization declared the restoration of the Muslim caliphate—are only distantly related to Al Qaeda. Though the two organizations share a common ideology, there are several critical differences, notes Romain Caillet, a historian who specializes in the studies of modern Salafism.

First, whereas IS favors the creation of an immediate Islamic state with an established government infrastructure and state currency, Al Qaeda has typically operated within existing political structures. IS fighters also belong to a younger generation than Al Qaeda’s more reasoned militants. Born from the failed war in Iraq, IS has mastered the art of communication, recruiting young jihadists through all social media forums. Al Qaeda, though effective in making several YouTube videos, has never mastered the art of social media the way that this young terrorist group has.

IS is also more effective at recruiting foreign nationals. In the last year, there has been a 100 percent increase in the number of French involved in jihadi activities. This, of course, fuels the fear that jihadists will return home to carry out attacks on French territory. And given that France has joined the international coalition to fight IS, this fear particularly strong.

Undoubtedly, the videos featuring European jihadists are designed to stir such fears. “They know the effect it will have here. They want to throw doubt on European Muslims,” said Jean-Pierre Filiu, adding that “today, there isn’t a profile of the typical jihadist anymore. It’s a juxtaposition of different categories.”

Perhaps most notably, this video of the French jihadist was posted with the international coalition successfully slowed the progression of IS forces. “Each time the Islamic State loses ground and suffers a setback, it resorts to an execution to galvanize its troops, pressure the leaders, and impact the mood of western public opinions,” explains Caillet.

European countries face a new kind of terrorism—one that is home grown and active within their own borders. However, it is incredibly difficult to slow the growth of European jihadists given the challenge in identifying the targets. So far France has made few efforts to address the issue directly.  L’Académie de Poitiers published “précis anti-radicalisation” (summary on anti-radicalization), which aimed to fight radicalization in schools by helping to identify people who would easily be persuaded to join a jihadist cause. Those it deems at greatest risk include those with “Muslim traditional clothes,” “long beard,” “loss of weight due to frequent fasting,” or those who show an “interest for the beginnings of Islam.” Strongly denounced for its clear targeting of Muslims, this document is—if not entirely useless—the wrong approach to tackling the rise of French jihadists.

The French goal to fight against communitarianism—or the existence of separate and distinct communities—has never faced such a serious and precarious challenge before. To keep social peace, new policies need to be reevaluated, ones that don’t isolate and target Muslims directly, but enforce republican values, especially when it comes to secularism.

If France wants to effectively curtail the rise of jihadists within its borders, it needs to attack the source of the problem—the effective social media strategies that IS employs to recruit young and hopeless Europeans. French authorities will need to closely monitor the videos and messages that IS sends, and then offer a counter-narrative to the one that many Europeans are apt to consume in this time of existential crisis.

Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

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